Two months before his 40th birthday, an executive named W. Douglas Parker reached a gigantic career milestone: He was named CEO of a major airline.
The airline was America West, and the date was September 1, 2001.
Ten days later, of course, the world changed — and the aviation industry along with it. But during the 20 years since then, one thing has stayed constant in the business, until now. Parker has been at the helm.
Last week, news broke that Parker, who is now 60 years old and the CEO of American Airlines after a series of mergers and acquisitions, will finally be stepping down.
I’ve written a lot about how and why business leaders in every industry should pay attention to the airlines. They’re publicly traded companies in a commodity industry, with an army of analysts, journalists, and stakeholders following their every move.
It’s hard to imagine another industry that’s so transparent, as a result, and from which more case studies of business leadership emerge on a regular basis: the good, the bad, and the ugly.
Nobody’s name comes up in these stories more than Parker’s.
Honestly, it doesn’t matter if you’re a fan of American Airlines or not; Parker has had such a long career with so many teachable moments, that it’s hard to imagine the airline industry without him.
For example, I share a longer version of this vignette all the time; it encompasses an entire chapter in my free ebook, Flying Business Class (download here):
Parker once explained how he had to learn not to make off-the-cuff remarks on how things could be improved at the airline.
Why? Because, as he put it, “You don’t want to change the priority of something that wasn’t a priority. You want to be careful not to have people drop what they are doing so they can take care of something you noticed.”
Or else, there’s the story of how Parker was flying as a deadhead passenger on Southwest Airlines, and struck up a long conversation with a flight attendant who was Black, and who noticed him reading the book, White Fragility.
She had no idea who he was until he told her afterward, and the world would not have known about their lengthy, intense conversation except that she posted about it on social media.
The two of them developed a legitimate friendship, to the point that a year later, Parker attended her wedding. Find me another big company leader who has stories like that following him around.
Now, the paradox is that even after Parker is gone, he won’t really be gone.
- For one thing, he holds the record for longest tenure as an airline CEO in the post-deregulation era, by a mile.
- For another, he’s not exiting 100 percent; instead, he’ll be American’s chairman, even as the airline’s current president, Robert Isom, takes over as CEO. (The transition is set for March 2022.)
- But, there’s also a third element, which is the sheer degree to which the top airlines’ leadership has been so entwined with one another.
Parker started out in the industry as part of what at least one observer called the airline Brat Pack (a group of young American Airlines executives in the 1980s including Parker, several of whom went on to become CEOs).
Moreover, the CEO of American’s rival, United Airlines, Scott Kirby, who predicted last month that United would be bigger than American by next summer, began his career as an executive at America West alongside Parker.
Kirby was Isom’s predecessor as president of American Airlines under Parker, before going to United and eventually becoming CEO.
In other words, these guys all know each other — and very well.
Now, with Parker’s looming retirement–a CEO who took over just before 9/11 and who is leaving just before (we hope) the end of the pandemic–it’s the beginning of the end of an era.
Even if you’re not in the airline industry (as most of us aren’t), I hope some of the lessons here will be clear.
- First, none of this lasts forever. One day, you’re the brash young CEO (here’s video of Parker at age 39, testifying before Congress about the fallout from 9/11 on the airline industry). The next day you’re the gray-haired veteran, on the way out to make room for someone new.
- And second, in the longest run, only one thing really matters in business: What’s your legacy, and how will you be remembered when you’re gone?
We’ll have Parker around for a few more months, and I’m sure: a few more lessons. Here’s to paying close enough attention to learn them.